REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Queens | Fig Tree Theatre, Sydney
Shakespeare’s Queens is something of a primer in The Bard’s voluminous works. WS 101. But that could be rather dull and dry, were it not for the fact that writer Kath Perry, who also stars, has just as robust a sensibility for entertainment as education. She also benefits from director Roz Riley at the top of her game, presiding with restraint in all things, letting the gifted and experienced cast (also featuring Rachel Ferris as all the queens Perry doesn’t play, and Patrick Trumper as ye olde Bill) get on with it, so as to illuminate the very well-measured text, in which even a recurring bottom joke, which could fall over as crassly Benny Hill, works its, well, arse off.
It all makes for a taut hour of intense textual pleasure (for anyone that thought mere sms could get you off, think again). Perry is marvellously haughty as Liz I, wielding power like a wildly swinging axe, ambivalent and nonchalant about who its blade may catch. If power is aphrodisiacal, it’s easy to discern in Perry’s Elzabethan portrayal.
As far as I’m aware there’s nothing to suggest she ever met Bill Shakespeare, but it’s fun to speculate on the nature and course such an encounter might’ve taken. In this rich imagining, Shakespeare is reduced to flattering the virginal monarch, in a cat-and-mouse game in which they both seem to instinctively know the rules.
But of course Shakespeare, who may’ve been one himself, had plenty more queens up his puffy sleeve. We meet the serpent of the Nile, Cleopatra, as ruthless and capricious as the head-rolling queen of England, as likely to shoot the messenger as perpetrator and ever seeking to be flattered. There’s Titania, Margaret, Tamara, Hermione, Gertrude, Lady Macbeth. The demands on all three actors to jump into different shoes, dispositions and accents are acute, but they do it as easily as changing pyjamas.
A baker’s dozen plays or so are drawn upon, in something of a ‘best bits’ fashion, which is tasty indeed. We get in the full Monty of intrigue, murder, allure, seduction, treachery, passion, betrayal, infidelity and more, while being reminded of just how pivotal Shakespeare’s queens are to his plays and how forceful their characters: think of how his lady fires Macbeth’s equivocating ambition, for example. Or of the vicious hags Lear raised; from hell, apparently.
But it’s perhaps “Good Queen Bess”, as Perry is apt to refer to her, that possessed and obsessed Shakespeare, who seems to have brought many of her traits (clearly apparent to him, given their contemporaneity) to bear in his other queenly characters. Whenever he had a queen ride into battle with her men, he may well have been thinking of her, her fortitude, her Machiavellian propensities, her prick-teasing. There are fanciful theories kicking around that even beyond the possibility of having a thing for her, Shakespeare may have even have had a fling with her. More outrageous yet, but fuelling the Oedipal fire lit under Hamlet, is the idea that the playwright was her son. And you thought Who Weekly was an organ of titillating, tantalising gossip.
There was no misogyny at play in his dramatic life: Shakespeare seemed to harbour genuine admiration, fascination and abiding respect for his queens. He lavished his talent on them, which might’ve been the greatest possible way of distantly, figuratively romancing them, one and all.
In a cohesive, attractive, easygoing manner that’s still all too rare, Perry and co reanimate Shakespeare, bringing his still vital, fantastical words back to vibrant life.
Perry’s already knocked over Shakespeare’s Mothers. Now Queens. What’s next? I can hardly wait.
The details: Shakespeare’s Queens played the Fig Tree Theatre on February 21.
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